As Kim Inspects Russia’s Military, Putin Cultivates ‘Axis of the Sanctioned’
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, peeked his head into the cockpit of a fighter jet at a factory in the Russian Far East on Friday as he pressed ahead on a multiday tour of Russia that is enticing him at each stop with off-limits military technology.
Although Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, hasn’t promised Mr. Kim any of the weaponry and has vowed to abide by U.N. sanctions banning their transfer, the tour carried an implicit threat — an example of what analysts say is a growing danger posed by Mr. Putin’s increasingly warm relationship with authoritarian leaders who can pose problems for the West.
At the same time, according to U.S. officials, Mr. Putin is cultivating new sources of arms and munitions for his war against Ukraine.
“I think it’s really serious,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who previously led analyses of Russia by the U.S. intelligence community.
“It’s not just that it helps Russia mitigate Western pressure and sustain the war in Ukraine,” Ms. Kendall-Taylor said. “The more important consequence is Russia is actually amplifying other challenges that the United States faces.”
The Russian president is ever more loudly casting himself as the leader of a global resistance to the United States, as Washington escalates its isolation of Russia and increases its support for Ukraine.
Mr. Putin has embraced the Ayatollah in Iran. He has cruised the Neva River in St. Petersburg with African autocrats. He has sat side by side in the Kremlin making small talk with Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad.
His efforts crescendoed this week as he hosted Mr. Kim, the leader of one of the world’s most repressive and militarized governments, and one with missiles capable of hitting the United States. The Russian president welcomed Mr. Kim on Wednesday to a remote space facility in the Amur region, where the North Korean leader toasted their “sacred struggle” against the “band of evil” in the West.
In an appearance Friday alongside another dictator aligned against the West, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, Mr. Putin said Washington’s belief that it is exceptional was “the main problem of today’s international relations.” He presented himself as the leader of a charge to end what he regularly calls a unipolar world dominated by the United States.
“The overwhelming majority of participants in international relations are fighting along with us to create a multipolar world, since this situation suits almost no one,” Mr. Putin said. “I say ‘almost’ because even those countries that are supposedly allies of the United States, I assure you, they also do not like this situation.”
Complete with chummy backslapping and fiery invective, Mr. Putin’s summits with fellow autocrats at times have come across as hollow swagger. The State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, on Wednesday painted Mr. Putin as desperate, saying the Russian leader had failed to achieve his goals in Ukraine and now found himself “begging Kim Jong-un for help.”
But the growing closeness between Mr. Putin and other anti-Western authoritarian leaders, particularly in Iran and North Korea, carries serious implications for U.S. national security, analysts say, as an increasingly isolated Russia, armed with nuclear weapons and advanced military technology, finds less to lose in enabling Washington’s most dangerous foes.
Russia’s turn to Iran and North Korea for armaments has already driven Moscow closer to those nations in international negotiations — and has raised questions about what the Russian government might provide in return.
The more desperate Russia gets, Ms. Kendall-Taylor said, “the more willing they are going to be to give things like technology away — and it’s making our adversaries more capable, and it’s emboldening them.”
And where Moscow previously cooperated with international disarmament efforts aimed at the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs, Moscow has become a less willing partner since its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia joined China in vetoing new sanctions on North Korea at the United Nations Security Council last year, and has shifted its rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear deal, primarily blaming Western nations for not reviving the pact.
Mr. Putin’s last meeting with Mr. Kim, in 2019, focused on questions of disarmament, but the topic was barely mentioned during this week’s summit.
“Some people call it an axis of authoritarians. You could also call it the axis of the sanctioned,” said Hanna Notte, director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Russia is prohibited by U.N. sanctions on North Korea from providing Mr. Kim military assistance — and the Russian leader has vowed to abide by those restrictions.
But Mr. Putin has said that doesn’t entirely rule out military cooperation, and Mr. Kim’s tour schedule alone seemed to imply that possibility.
On Friday morning, Mr. Kim arrived in the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur in eastern Russia and visited the Yuri Gagarin aircraft plant. The facility produces Russian civilian and military planes, including Su-35 and Su-57 fighter jets, according to Tass, the Russian state news agency.
The plant is named after the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first person in space.
Mr. Kim’s tour of the Russian aviation factory highlighted his ambitions to modernize his country’s aging air force. Many of his country’s war planes are museum pieces — old Soviet models provided by Moscow during the 1950-53 Korean War. Hamstrung by international sanctions, the North has also struggled to secure fuel and parts for its planes.
On his trip, Mr. Kim has been accompanied by senior officials in charge of his country’s military and defense industry.
At the Vostochny Cosmodrome earlier in the week, the North Korean leader viewed powerful rockets similar to the ones he hopes to build to launch military satellites.
Mr. Kim is now scheduled to go to Vladivostok, on Russia’s eastern coast, where Mr. Putin has said the visiting leader would see the Pacific Fleet. Though it is unclear which facilities he will visit, the naval fleet includes a large number of modernized submarines — the likes of which North Korea would like to develop.
Even as Washington has said Moscow is seeking armaments for its forces in Ukraine from Pyongyang, the Kremlin has denied that any agreements were signed as a result of the summit. Russia’s increasing reliance on China could temper any plans to help North Korea in a way that might anger Beijing.
Mr. Putin reiterated Friday that Russia did not intend to violate U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea, which bar the transfer of weapons or technology that could be used for weapons to the nation.
“We never violate anything, and in this case we are not going to violate anything,” Mr. Putin said. “But, of course, we will look for opportunities to develop Russian-North Korean relations.”
Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting.
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